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High Drama: The Early Morning Shift

There was still 400ºF plus heat inside of Mildrith when I went to light the fire for this morning’s bake. Starting from a cold oven, it can take upwards of 20 minutes to set the wood and tinder, but this morning I laid down a few pieces of wood and paper and she started up quickly. Within minutes, the fire was blazing and I felt the heat hard on my face.

It was 4:30 a.m. The full moon was setting in the west. It was so bright, I could see the shadows of trees on the silver-lit grass. The sky was still dark enough to see stars.

I carried dough in proofing baskets down from the garage fridge to the bench beside Mildrith. I used a flashlight to illuminate the driveway in front of me. As I laid it out, I heard a deer walk briskly past behind Mildrith, not six feet away. Did it see my face illuminated by the bright yellow and orange of the fire? Was it a little spooked by the spitting and cracking of flame?

It would be a couple of hours before Mildrith was ready for the loaves. She had to reach well above baking temperature, before I could sweep out the ashes and embers, leaving the hearth floor tidy and clean. I would then seal her off and leave her for an hour to let the ambient temperature fall to about 475ºF and equalize on all the surfaces. No hot spots and cool spots!

The Ancient Grain loaves (Einkorn Sourdough) would bake first, eight of them, and a pan of boiling water to fill the oven with steam. They are arranged on the bench, along with a floured peel and a razor blade to score the loaves just before being loaded inside Mildrith. I had a small flour shaker on hand to throw down a mix of rice and wheat flour, so the dough wouldn’t stick to the peel when I shook it onto the hearth. I was ready. It was a waiting game for the next step … when Mildrith was ready for the loaves.

When the moment arrives, it’s all drama! Flour the peel! Dump the dough out of the basket, score it! Open the oven and find a place to load the dough, keeping in mind you’ve got to conserve space! Shove the peel in and shake the dough off, make sure it’s well placed. Close the oven doors! Repeat!

Then seal off the oven again, this time with the big heat plug and a wet towel draped over it to introduce more steam and moisture inside the belly of Mildrith. The belly of Mildrith!

Don’t try to interrupt me! Don’t ask me where the cereal is! Or the almond milk! I hear you, but I probably won’t answer! Or at least not until the drama is finished. Not until the oven is loaded.

The first load is baking, but I’m still sleepy, still waking up. Sunlight creeps across the landscape. The birdsong is in full throttle. Hummingbirds divebomb, songbirds call and answer. Ravens do their weird gutteral thing. Off the prow of our property, the ocean is like glass, reflecting subtle shades of pink and orange. A finger of dark blue hovers overhead. The shape of Stuart Island, six miles across water, is clear now. The Olympic Mountains, too.

Time to notice, time to move slowly again. Time to get ready for the next load, — the Salish Sourdough and Seed Bread — the same drama all over again!

People have been saying to me for weeks, “Are you really ready for the baker’s life, the bleary-eyed, never-ending overnight shift baking bread for the morning market?”

I have been answering them, over and over, this morning. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

And when the bread is done, delivering the loaves to my customers, all up and down Pender Island.

Another “Yes!”

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